Only a couple of years ago, Jock Mackay’s land was under water.
Now Cangon, the Dungog property that’s been in his family for 180 years, is completely dry.
Where there were knee-high pastures a few months ago are now “a few weeds and horse manure”. That’s where it isn’t simply dust.
It’s a stark contrast for the 36-year-old, who comes from a family of well-known Hunter polo identities, and whose land was among the many inundated by the rush of water brought by the super storm in April, 2015.
“This, here, got massively hit by the flood. This was all under water,” Mr Mackay told Fairfax Media during a drive around his property on Friday.
“There was about six months of fencing after that storm hit. The little cottage went under water - there was somebody inside at the time so we had to chuck a life raft in and pull him out. So it was a bit of an extreme turn-around.”
While fast-arriving natural disasters like floods were extremely challenging for landowners, Mr Mackay said, the slow deterioration of a drought was a different kind of tough.
“[In] a flood, you’ve got not much time to get your head around it before it’s happened. When it happens, it’s gone again quickly and it’s less painful to an extent. Here, you see it every day getting worse and worse and the hope of rain sort of disappears,” he said.
“You wake up to this every day and it’s very hard to get too excited about having to go and feed 100 horses. It’s just part of living on the land. One day without rain is one day closer to it, as they say.”
Mr Mackay expects his horses – thoroughbreds and polo ponies – will be looked after on the property until the drought breaks.
But he has so far sent half of his 120 head of cattle to another site to “relieve a bit of pressure”.
“It’s probably as dry as I’ve seen it,” he said.
“Around these areas you’re usually fairly safe. Other areas in the west or north west might be dry [but] we’re just close enough to the coast where we get some of that coastal rain. [We’ve had] no coastal rain at all.”
Just like their Upper Hunter companions, many farmers and landholders in the lower part of the valley have been battling harsh, dry conditions for several months.
Blistering heat and barely any meaningful rainfall has turned many areas into wasteland.
The situation has now drawn the attention of the NSW government.
Primary industries minister Niall Blair, Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald and Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen met with farmers on Friday to see the conditions for themselves.
Mr Blair announced that a rural support worker had been enlisted and would be based in Scone to provide wellbeing measures, help with skills and finance and in-drought management advice across the region.
He said the support worker, Linda Russell, had been appointed to give drought affected landowners “a single access point for support measures”.
“Dwindling water supplies and a real shortage of feed for livestock are presenting our farmers with critical decision points and today I have witnessed first-hand the challenges they are facing,” Mr Blair said.
“The impacts of drought go well beyond what the eye can see - it goes right to [the] heart of our regional communities.”
Mr Johnsen said Ms Russell understood how hard the conditions had hit Hunter farmers up and down the valley.
“The [Department of Primary Industries] has a team of rural resilience officers across the state who will be working with Linda immediately to ensure her impact is felt by our community,” he said.
Meanwhile, not far from Cangon, John Hooke sat in his lounge room and thought back through a life as a dairy farmer on the same Dungog property – many of those with his wife Roslyn.
The creeks that run through his land have completely dried up and the Williams River is little more than a puddle as it cuts through his place.
“Bone dry” is how the 73-year-old puts it.
He took over the farm when he was 17 because his father was no longer able – young John had to learn quickly in the years after he took the reins.
A major flood struck Dungog in the early 1960s and turned into the catastrophic drought of 1964-65.
Mr Hooke says that drought was the worst he’s been through – but is quick to add that this one “is not over yet”.
“It’s the hardest six or seven months I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Like many other Hunter farmers, Mr Hooke has had to feed hundreds of head of cattle on his property each day, which is an expensive exercise that he estimates costs at least $1000 a day.
“You could sell your cattle but you don’t want to do that, especially if you’ve got good bloodlines,” he said. “It’d break your heart.”
But, even if he could have his time over again, he said he’d live his life on the land – despite the tough times.
From the chair in his lounge room on Friday, he could see one son working outside in the distance, and further beyond he could spy the roof of his other son’s home. His daughter lives down the road.
“There’s a personal attachment to the area and the property where I grew up, where I’ve been all my life.”
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